History of Olympic Weightlifting
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Interview with Gennady Ivanchenko, December 2007
by Arthur Chidlovski
Gennady Ivanchenko is a legend of Olympic weightlifting. Athletes' era in sports is limited by age, by injuries, by politics and by many other factors. In weightlifting, we refer to legends using their poundages, titles they won and, last but not least, by personal memories. Statistics wise, Ivanchenko was the first light heavyweight ever to break the 500 kg record in total. He won national and international tournaments and broke world records. With elimination of Olympic press, Ivanchenko's world record of 178.5 kg in 1972 was pre destined to become an eternal record. More information on Gennady Ivanchenko is available in the Top Lifters section.
No doubts that his appearance on the platform was something one can't forget. Lift Up was honored to speak to Gennady Ivanchenko about the past, the present and the future of the Olympic weightlifting.
You might view the profile and video footage of Gennady Ivanchenko @ Lift Up or scroll down to see Gennady Ivanchenko' Gallery. If you have questions, comments or want to share your memories, please Interact with Gennady Ivanchenko.
We would like to extend our special thanks to Sergey Lukjanov and his family in Riga, Latvia in making the interview arrangements and in helping to prepare this material.
For many fans of Olympic weightlifting, your performance at the World Championship was simly unforgettable. After you won the gold medal, everybody spoke about the phenomenon of Ivanchenko. What were your impressions about the tournament, about your opponents, about people on and off the platform in Columbus?
When we got to the United States, the first impressions were huge. We arrived to New York, saw the tall buildings, the skyscrapers. It was all very unusual to us. Then we moved to Columbus. It was a very nice and beautiful city, very green. Very nice atmosphere, friendly people. We really loved the city and got a nice welcome there.
There were two or three days left to the championship. It was harder on the flyweight guys - they had to adjust to the new area faster. My weight class was 82.5 kg and we had a week for adjustment. I really loved the fans there because you could tell that they loved this sport and came to see this sport and cheered everybody who competed. The competition has was rather big - about 2,000 seats and they rooted for all. I really likes it because it doesn't happen everywhere.
I was well prepared for the tournament. I did all those world records in training and all I had to do is to repeat it at the Worlds. The most important thing was not to burn out. I had serious opponents there. The main opponent was David Rigert. He began to lift in the same weight class as me and we practically went toe to toe in the competitions. He wanted to be the first one to total 500 kg. But at the USSR nationals I beated him by 5 kg. He ended up with 495 kg.
David was very nervous. His bodyweight was heavier than mine. I had to lose 2-2.5 kg by dieting. I didn't shred weight in the sauna. David had to lose much more weight... Add to this all the excitement around and his strong desire to win, it all ended up with the third place for him. He lost two attempts in clean and jerk and everybody were rooting for him. I remember it as yesterday - it's my turn to lift but we all surrounded David and tried to cheer him up. He cleaned the weight and barely got up. It took a lot of courage from him to get up and then to jerk the weight up. He was chasing the weight all over the platform but got it in the end.
After the championship, his coach, famous Rudolph Plukfelder saw that David's results would have stopped to grow if he didn't move into the next weight class - to the 90kg class. As a result, he achieved huge success and 60 world records. Overall, it was his weightclass by all definitions.
As for me, I used all my attempts and made two world records. My total was 505 kg. I can't say I used all my potential at the moment. I played save with my attempts - not to have misses.
What else? I always loved bodybuilding. In Columbus I was fortunate to meet and get autographs of John Grimek and Larry Scott. I visited several training halls in America. People kept asking me about my personal bests in various lifts. When I told them my results, they were in shock. For example, my best pulls were 300kg. I loved to do pulls or deadlifts and really wanted to compete in them but there were no competitions of that sort in the Soviet Union. My best squad was 295 kg and best bench press 175 kg. I did the bench press without any techniques.
But what really surprised them were my parallel dips with weights. They kept asking me again and again and couldn't believe me. I knew that there was a world record set by Davis - 145 kg. My hidden goal was to get a permission and to register for these competitions to break this record. In training, I did 140 kg, 135x3 and 100x10x5. Those dips were great for Olympic press. I had a damaged vertebrae and couldn't do tricks in Olympic press. So, I had to build up my results in this lift by building strength. As you know, my press of 178.5 kg remains the world record. I also did the seated press 160x2.
Speaking of the press, in 1972, the Olympic press lift was eliminated from Olympic weightlifing competition. What was the reason for this and how did athletes react to this decision of the IWF?
As for discontinuing the press from Olympic weightlifting, the main reason was various injuries of the back. Sometimes, athletes were pressing literally in parallel to the platform. That was how far they were backbending backward. This trick was allowed and it led to many injuries. Before that, we did military press. I used to do it because I loved strict strength lifts.
Although national team athletes mostly trained with their clubs, some saw me doing seated press with 160 kg. There was a great athlete Pavel Pervushin - world champion, beautiful guy, blonde hair... So, in one of the national team training sessions, Jaan Talt, Vasily Alexeev and Stanislav Batishchev were doing seated press. They began with 110 kg. Pervushin saw it and said: "Why bother, guys? Look at Gennady, he'll beat all of ya..." He made a bet for a bottle of grape juice - lets call it this way. Anyway, I joined our heavyweights and went on with 120x5. Then 140x5 and then 160x2. They had a huge surprise. Talts said: "What kind of athlete are you?!! If you do seated press with the world record and I can't do it... you should press over 200 kg!"
The whole thing was about tricks in techniques. I couldn't do the tricks in press because of the damaged vertebrae. When I got injured first, I couldn't lift for 8 months. I was 20 at the time and thought that it was over for me in sports. Doctors insisted on the surgery and told me that I could no longer compete. I was stubborn and driven by the desire to become a big athlete, to become strong and that helped me to overcome.
What were your favorite lifts? What were your best results in various lifts?
In the press lift, I did 178.5 kg. In the snatch, my personal best was 156 kg in the 82.5 kg class. Later on, I competed in the 90 kg class in the end of my career and achieved results of the master of sports of international class.
In the clean and jerk, I did 217 kg in training and 212 kg in the competitions.
As for my favorite lift, I have to say that our generation was universal, multi-disciplinary. But, overall, it was press because I had a big efficiency in the press lift. Had I risked or done tricks, I would have pumped the records up to 190 kg. I didn't do it because of the vertebrae injury, I was a strictly strength athlete. I pressed up a 32-kg kettle bar with another one atop of it.
The whole world was amazed by your fantastic physique. Was it given by nature or did you achieve it through training? How did you begin your career in Olympic weightlifting?
My career didn't begin with the Olympic weightlifting. I was born in a small town of Gzhatsk where the first man in space, Yury Gagarin was born. I loved to read books about bodybuilding exercises by Tenno, I loved to read about famous strongmen - Poddubny, Zaikin, Hakkensmidt.
At 16, I began to train in kettlebar lifting. In a year, I achieved decent results and won the senior championship of Smolensk district. I was a junior and won against the serious adult athletes. My bodyweight was 67 kg. In fact, I showed the result of master of sports - although officially it wasn't established yet. My first resuls were 32x38 right hand press and 32x35 left had press. I did the snatch endlessly - till the palm was washed up, up to 50 times. As for a two hand clean and jerk, it was difficult. Two kettlebars together were 64 kg and with my bodyweight of 67 kg, I did 13-14 times on those competitions.
Then, I started to train with the pick-up tractor axel. It was about 50 kg and I pressed it with one hand. I pressed two 32 kg kettlebars for 4 times.
I was 16 and lifted barrels and oxygen tanks. I lifted two oxygen tanks (90 kg each) from a truck and we used to bet on how fast I'd do those! There were hand strength meters there. I broke two of them with my right hand - it showed over 90 kg. Left hand wasn't that strong. I didn't brake amy meter with the left hand.
At 17, I went to Riga to study in the Seaman School. Firstly, I went right to the sports facilities to see the training of the sportsmen. The coach saw that I was well built and asked me if I ever did any sports. I said that I did kettlebar lifting. He asked me if I ever tried to do Olympic weightlifting. I told him that I lifted the tractor axel but have never seen Olympic style bar.
"Wanna try?" he asked me.
I got in and began to lift. Suddenly, I noticed that all these big athletes in the hall started to gather around me and look at me. I pressed 100 kg. Then I cleaned 105 kg but couldn't press it overhead. I did it military press style.
The coach said: "Do you know that you just pressed a junior record of the Soviet Union?"
That's how I began to train in the Dynamo Riga weightlifting hall.
Do you remember your first competitions and the results you showed?
At my first competitions, I showed the results of Class A athletes at the Junior National of the Soviet Union. I competed in the 67.5 kg weight class.
My technique was rough but I was learning it quickly. The most unpleasant for me was that because of the kettlebar history my muscles were blocked. My hands were stronger and I pulled the weight using mostly biceps. So, I had to work a lot on stretching and flexibility.
I paid a lot of attention to various kind of jumps. I did over 100 jumps per training session. Those were jumps over hurdles 1-1.1 meter high. I mounted those on the 60 meters distance and hopped over like a rabbit. I did about 10 sets of those. Once I had a bet with a track-and-field guys. One of them was a candidate to master of sports. He had to run 100 m and I had to hop 60 m with hurdles. Who was faster? I was. These exercises developed explosiveness and coordination for me.
Training volumes were not enough for me. The coach used to throw me out from the training hall. I was a fanatic. I could train only for half a day and already made the assigned 20 tons for a session. As a result, the whole club started to lift using my training style. Team results really went up. Many guys reached the master of sports of international class and our team took the third place on the Spartakiade.
Hockey players also trained in our hall. I never had enough training and I asked Victor Tikhonov, famous head coach of Dynamo Riga hockey team, to let me train with the hockey players when I was done with my routines. One day Tikhonov had a conversation with his strength trainer Michael Freifeld about the scheduling of the players for the hockey season and said that he had a person here who's extremely talented and that he can become a champion for sure. That's how I began to train with Michael Freifeld.
On April 24, 1970, Gennady Ivanchenko showed a phenomenal result - 165 + 150 + 185 and became the first light heavyweight to total 500 kg. It was really a historical moment. Do you remember that day? Was it a pre-planned result?
It was in Vilnius, Lithiania. I went there with one goal - to total 500 kg. It was interesting in Vilnius. There was an episode before when I was snatching 160 kg in Vilnius. While getting up from a low squad, the weight turned me 180 degrees and I was standing back to the officials. After the command "Down", they announced no lift. Apparently, they were not ready to such a turn. That was the only time I bombed out... So I had many memories connected with Vilnius.
Anyway, before Vilnius, I showed all results in training. David Rigert also came to Vilnius to reach 500 kg. When the competition was over, David had 495 kg in total. I did 500 kg and turned down the last attempt. Many people asked me "Why?" afterwards and I kept answering because I wanted to lift exactly 500 kg. That was the goal. I could have done 505-507.5 over there too, prior to the Worlds.
Competing in the Olympics is a dream of any athlete. In 1972, you were not selected to compete in the Olympics. It's probably a difficult question to answer. It's an interesting topic because it's not well-known what happens behind the scenes and most of the time we find out about this from rumors or by reading newspaper highlights.
It's an interesting question to answer... By the time of the Olympics, I won the Worlds, the Europeans, set world records and all I have left was to win the Olympics. I trained very seriously to copmpete at the Olympics. I got injured but still competed in the USSR championship with a ripped capsule in the shoulder. In 1971, I was scheduled to go to the Wolds in Peru. But the Olympics were to be next year and I wanted to heal the injury. So, I passed the 1971 Worlds.
By 1972, I reached a good shape and showed great results. In training, I snatched 160x2 and it was a world record. There were three candidates to go to the Olympics in my weight class, 82.5 kg. All three of us were world champions - probably the highest competition among candidates was in the 82.5 kg. In addition, there was a huge competition between the clubs the candidates represented. Each club, the Army, Dynamo, Unions, pushed their own athlete. It ended rather strange. I couldn't even think that I would not compete.
Prior to departure to the Olympics, we had trials. Not to be pushed around, I did all my lifts around the world records, higher than both Boris Pavlov and Valery Shary. 10 days before the departure , I got a temperature 37.1 degree. No one knew about this. With 5 days left, the team doctor discovered that and at the team meeting it was announced that I won't compete...
What happened at the Olympics in 1972? It was simply a catastrophic performance by the Soviet lifters - one bomb-out after another one and Team USSR lost to Team Bulgaria. What was your impression of the Olympics?
Overall, I'll tell you that the 1972 Olympics were the most unpleasant in the history of Olympic weightlifting. I'd say it was because of the competion between clubs, an overall excitement and a real tense atmosphere around the Games.
In the end, both Shary and Pavlov bombed out in my class. I was their main opponent, they couldn't bypass me in the battle and they had no respect for each other. I think when I got out of the picture, they both saw themselves as Olympic champion. But there was only one Olympic gold medal there. So, they both ordered too much for opening lifts and so it happened. Prior to them Kanygin bombed out, then David did. Talts and Alexeev decided to play safe and lowered down the weights - the medal was more important.
After the Olympics, I wanted to prove to everybody "who is who" and went to Germany. I went for a world record in clean and jerk - power cleaned it and over did it. I once again injured my spine vertebrae, my old damaged vertebrae... I did the jerk part and couldn't feel my leg. After I dropped the weight, I couldn't walk and had to hop from the platform on one leg.
I struggled with this injury for 2 years. The leg shrunk by 16 centimeters. I competed on this "dry" leg and on the nationals even won a silver medal. As a part of recoperation, I did a lot of good morning bends to strengthen the back muscles. One day, I decided to set my personal best - did 200x5 and then broke the record with 230 kg. When I was doing these bends, everybody refused to spot me - how would you spot there? So, you either do it or not. When I did the 230 kg bend, I suddenly felt that something changed, the leg became alive again. Apparently, the nerve got released or something. Anyway, up till the end of my carrier, the length difference between two legs remained at 2-3 centimeters.
You were a member of the legendary Team USSR. It was a team of champions, the first team of the post-war generation. Can you tell us about some of your legendary teammates?
David Rigert was a unique athlete, super talented. He was gifted by nature. What can I say about Vasily Alexeev - nearly 80 world records was set by him. You asked about our training methodology - I would say we were the last generation of strongmen among weightlifters, we were universal athletes. I'd say it was a golden era in the history of national weightlifting. We had so many world champions and world record breakers then. At one USSR championship, I remember 18 out of 24 participants in the light heavyweight were master of sports international class!
Alexeev is a very peculiar personality. He was a workaholic and liked to experiment. I am a different experimentator - mostly what to lift... He was experimenting with exercises. For example, his back bends on the gymnastic horse helped many lifters to heal injuries, to achieve a lot. It was his exercise. Then he lifted in the river. One had to have a colossal strength to do that - when you get out of water, the speed changes drastically. It was an interesting find.
There was an interesting moment at the Jean Damme Cup in Trouix, France. I was applying the finolgon cream on myself - I used to put a lot on myself. Vasily had some back problems and asked me to put a bit on him too. He had rather a very gentle skin and I put too much on him. He got ballistic and almost smashed me on the spot. It was his turn to get on the platform and we had no choice but to wash it out in the shower. I messed up and splashed a handful of hot water on his back. He flew out if the shower like a bullet and ran to the platform to lift. I thought that was it - had he not lifted the weight I was a dead man. But it turned out OK. Vasily set 4 world records that time. Afterwards, I approached him and said there was a bit of my help in his success because I put finolgon on you.
Today, many experts talk about different schools and methodologies in Olympic weightlifting. What were the most popular schools in your times in sports?
There were many great schools of lifting back then - Shakhty, Moscow school, fantastic school in Kiev, southern schools, Armenian. We had a very good school in Riga too.
Methodology was different in all schools but the results were high in all of them. When Bulgarian started to rapidly develop their methodology, they invited us to their training. They assigned two group of scientists to us, asked us to show our training logs and basically took all our methods. Then they added something of their own and created famous Bulgarian school. Abadzhiev once said the Riga's school was the best.
As for me, I disagree that our school in Riga was the best. We did a lot of unnecessary things. We should have not done those. I was lifting 500 tons per month. I'd say 200 tons was enough. I had no time for recuperation and rest at all... And with all these overtraining, I was able to set world records. It was silly. They were looking up our methodology and we, on the contrary, tried to find out if we could see the opposite - slowing down of the volumes. Look at the clubs in Shakty. They managed well both high volumes and low volumes. Ability to lower the volumes and peak for the competition is an art of its own. It is not easy. There are general principles here but there are also the individual ones too.
When was your last competition? It's no secret that it used to be a painful process for many athletes to transform from being an active lifter to a "regular" life.
My last competitions were in 1979. I competed in the middle heavyweight then (90 kg).I went up in the weight class after the injury. I even felt second youth or something. Had I not change the weight class, maybe we would have not have this conversation. The results went up, of course. Not a lot, but it was easier for me in the new class. I never reached more than 87 kg in bodyweight. My optimal weight was 85 kg. So, shredding 2-3 kg certainly affected the ability to reach world record level.
I had no energy left in me to prepare for the 1980. Time takes its own. I had no time to change. Zhabotinsky managed to do that. This giant didn't train, played tennis, volleyball and that was it. In training, he did couple of lifts in training and that was it for the session. He was natural. He didn't have to train much. Some people said: "Had he trained, he would have..." When I was younger, I would have said the same thing. Now, I can say that it all depends - you can train A LOT and show NOT A LOT; you can also train NOT A LOT and show A LOT in competition. There is a thin line here. It is very individual.
I always used training exercises I was blamed for. I was told those are not good, not good for weightlifting. I loved to pump up muscles and always answered that human being doesn't have unnecessary muscles. Why could I have a beautiful figure and be a champion on Olympic weightlifting?
I was interested in both the process of training and the beauty of the body.
What was the worst moment in sports career of Gennady Ivanchenko?
I'd say I had two worst moments in my career - when I was not allowed to compete at the 1972 Olympics and when I was not allowed to go to America to break the record in the parallel dips. I recorded my lift on video and sent it to the United States - so, that they could watch it and invite me to the competition. I don't know about nowadays. Maybe, that record still stays unbeaten. I loved the dips - it allowed to gain strength and to relax the back muscles.
Afterwards, I worked as a coach. I liked to be a coach. When I was a lifter, I never allowed myself to rest on. As for my students, I always looked on their qualification, if they have a potential. The goal was not to make a damage to their health. The most important is to follow your goal, to have a character and the main part is ability to work.
I had a athlete that we were preparing for the 1988 Olympics. Rapoport was his name. He competed in the 110 kg. In his worst shape, he should have been at least the bronze medallist. He was in the Olympics team but for some reason he didn't compete. I still don't know what happened over there. They took him with the national team but never let him compete. It was a paradox. I wasn't there - so, I can't tell you the reasons.
Today I am retired. Sometimes I help young athletes that are interested in Olympic weightlifting. I give them my advice. It is great that in Latvia that used to have such great athletes as Vasily Stepanov, Karlis Pumpurins, Vladimir Anikin, Alexander Dynnikov and many others, we now have a new world champion Victor Scherbatihs. By the way, his coach Andryshkevich was also a student of our Dynamo school.
Version of Ivanchenko: Five best lifters of all times?
Tommy Kono. I always followed the athletes of my weightclass.
Yurik Vardanyan from the generation after ours, he reached a lot of success.
Victor Kurentsov was an amazing lifter.
As for the athletes from our Baltic Republics, I'd certainly name Jaan Talts.
Another rather painful subject of weightlifting today is usage of doping and steroids in sports. What is your opinion about this?
Steroids in our times started to be used in the end of my career. The first ones to use those were Americans in bodybuilding and track and field, mostly throwers.
As I said, our generation that lifted in the 1970s is rather different to the ones that followed. The whole group consisted not only of gifted people but we also paid a lot of attention to the training process itself. I assume that in the following generations there were some that used anabolics. In our times, in a year we gained 5-10 kg in results, and then there was this huge jump - some unknown kid from an unknown basement shows up with a 50 kg gain in a year!
That's was happened between us and Bulgarians. We were at their training camp. Every Soviet athlete had a student attached to him - Bulgarian athlete. Our whole team was international class athletes, world record setters and they were all on the level of master of sports. In two years, I barely won by 5 kilos over one Bulgarian on the tournament in Hungary. He was the same master of sports that was assigned to me back then in Bulgaria. Does it say something to you?
And as you can notice, they don't last long in the competitions.
Overall, steroids are trouble.
What happened today is difficult to understand. There are over 2000 banned substances. Regular medications are banned too. I have no idea how they are going to resolve the issue. So far, it's a dead end.
Everybody wants to get the results fast.
I was about to end my career as a lifter and I watched young athletes. They didn't train like we did. The paid no attention to the training process.
What would be your wishes to the young athletes today?
To young lifters, I would like to wish the following... To those who already are lifting or just about to start to get involved in this sport, pick up a goal, and follow it with hard work and persistence and I promise you will have a very positive result. Not everybody can become a champion, but everybody can become strong and have a great athletic body if work hard and persistent.
Thank you very much for your answers and for unforgettable moments on the platform you gave to so many fans of the iron game.
Photos courtesy of Mr. Gennady Ivanchenko and his personal archives.
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